Champion staying hurdler Big Buck’s is to take a crucial step ahead of his eagerly anticipated return from injury with a racecourse gallop before racing at Exeter on Thursday.
The Paul Nicholls-trained ten-year-old has been kept on the sidelines since taking his winning streak over the small obstacles to 18 with a runaway victory in the Long-Distance Hurdle at Newbury nearly 13 months ago.
Owner Andy Stewart’s four-times Ladbrokes World Hurdle hero is likely to make his return to competitive action in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January, but will give racegoers a chance to assess his well being with a gallop at 12.15pm at the Devon track on Thursday.
The ultimate aim for the brilliant gelding is to try to win back his World Hurdle crown at the Festival in March, for which he is ante-post favourite at around 3-1.
Another Nicholls horse, Celestial Halo, and At Fishers Cross are set for round two in the Wessex Youth Trust Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday.
The pair met at Newbury in the Long-Distance Hurdle last month, with the Rebecca Curtis-trained At Fishers Cross sent off as the odds-on favourite. He was making heavy weather of it when a mistake at the second-last cost him all chance and he trailed home last of the four runners.
Celestial Halo, trained by Nicholls in the colours of Big Buck’s, took his career earnings to over £660,000 with that success but he is without a Grade One win over timber since his Triumph Hurdle win in 2008. Nicholls could also step Salubrious up in class.
Reve De Sivola won the Long Walk 12 months ago and is likely to bid for a repeat but he was some way behind Celestial Halo at Newbury, as was Medinas, another possible for Alan King. David Pipe has left in Grands Crus, who has failed to run up to form since a bold display in the King George almost a year ago.
The Paul Webber-trained Time For Rupert is another looking to return to former glories and will be making his return after over 400 days off.
Gordon Elliott’s Mala Beach is the sole Irish possible after Willie Mullins took out the likes of Zaidpour, Diakali and Thousand Stars.
Tom Symonds’ mare Tweedledrum completes the list of nine remaining entries.
A tilt at the Lexus Chase at Ireland’s Leopardstown on December 28 is “looking likely” for Unioniste.
The Nicholls-trained grey outstayed Wishfull Thinking to win at Aintree last time out, having finished third on his seasonal debut in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby.
Still only five, last year’s December Gold Cup winner is one of four Nicholls entries in the Christmas feature, but Silviniaco Conti is heading for the King George at Kempton, last year’s winner Tidal Bay may run in the Welsh National and Rocky Creek is unlikely to be ready in time after setback following the Hennessy.
Unioniste’s owner, John Hales, said: “It’s looking likely that we’ll take him over to Ireland, but no firm decision has yet been made.
“We’ll have to consider the ground, likely opponents, weather – Paul will weigh it all up and then decide. So there’s a chance he’ll go, but as yet it’s not definite. I’m imagine we’ll all know when we break up for Christmas.”